Georgia's Bank Failures Lead to Prosecutions; Atlanta Man Indicted in Relation to Omni National Bank

Georgia leads the nation in bank failures this decade, with 32 failed banks since 2002, 25 of those in 2009 alone, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Fraud has undoubtedly played a substantial role in the failure of many of these banks, and the FDIC and other agencies are especially vigilant in detecting and prosecuting fraud in the wake of bank failures.

Brent Merriel of Atlanta, Georgia, was indicted last week in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on four counts of aggravated identity theft and two counts of making false statements to the FDIC as announced by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia. Merriel is alleged to have obtained several million worth of loans on properties in his name and the names of family and friends from Omni National Bank (Omni). Omni failed on March 27, 2009, and was taken over by the FDIC. Merriel then asked the FDIC to forgive $2.2 million in loans and to allow him to make a "short sale" of two properties to purchasers. A short sale is a sale of a property for less than the full amount due or owed, which serves to reduce a lender's losses or assist the property owner. However, in Merriel's case, the alleged purchasers were allegedly persons whose identities had been stolen. Merriel is also alleged to have forged sales contracts and loan commitment letters which he submitted to the FDIC.

The release notes that other individuals have been prosecuted relating to Omni, including Mark Anthony McBride, who fraudulently obtained millions in mortgage loans from Omni and other lenders and who pled guilty last April, and Delroy Oliver Davy, who similarly obtained millions in fraudulent loans from Omni and others. It quotes FDIC Office of Inspector General, Southeast Region Special Agent In Charge C. Ed Slagle as stating that FDIC will aggressively investigate and prosecute fraudulent acts uncovered in the FDIC's process of liquidating assets of failed banks in order maximize recoveries. The release also quotes Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) Neil Barofski, Department of Housing and Urban Development Inspector General Kenneth M. Donohue and U.S. Postal Inspector in Charge, Atlanta Division Martin D. Phanco on fraud and enforcement.

Bear Stearns Execs Head for Trial on Wire and Securities Fraud Charges

As is well known, Bear Stearns, one of the largest investment banks in the world, was sold to JP Morgan Chase and effectively ceased to exist in March of 2008, after two Bear Stearns hedge funds invested in collateralized debt obligations—mainly subprime home loans—and once worth approximately $1.6 billion, lost nearly all of their value. The collapse of Bear Stearns was the harbinger for a succession of massive failures of financial institutions, including Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG, triggering the current global recession.

As reported by New York Magazine, Reuters and the Daily Telegraph, two managers of the hedge funds, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin were charged in June in the Eastern District of New York with several counts of wire and securities fraud for allegedly misleading investors regarding the status of the funds in the Spring of 2007. Cioffi, a hedge fund manager, and Tannin, the Chief Operating Officer of Bear Stearns Asset Management (BSAM), have pled not guilty. The collapse in value of the funds cost investors approximately $1.4 billion. When traders wanted to sell some of the funds’ subprime mortgages, no one wanted to buy them.

The trial of Cioffi and Tannin is set to begin in October. The evidence against Cioffi and Tannin consists largely of e-mails between them and investors describing the funds as “an awesome opportunity,” despite allegedly knowing that the funds had problems. Bear Stearns investors are expected to testify at the trial. Both men have consistently maintained their innocence. They face a potential 20 years in prison if convicted.

Cioffi is also charged with alleged insider trading for withdrawing $2 million of his own money from the funds. The government alleges that he engaged in hundreds of transactions involving the funds without the necessary approval by the fund’s directors and despite being warned about conflicts of interest. All trades between Bear Stearns, a securities firm, and BSAM, an asset management firm, were supposed to be vetted by an independent committee. In the Fall of 2006, Bear Stearns ordered a moratorium on such internal trades by Cioffi. Prosecutors sought to introduce evidence of Cioffi’s alleged insider trading in order to demonstrate how Cioffi allegedly operated.

British bank Barclays, a shareholder of one of the funds, also filed suit against Cioffi and Tannin for alleged fraud, however, the suit has been withdrawn.

The prosecution of Cioffi and Tannin makes conspicuously noticeable the fact that no senior executives from Bear, Lehman Brothers, AIG, etc., have been charged with any wrongdoing in the fallout from the financial crisis.